Former Rivonia trialist and anti-apartheid struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada died today, following a long illness. He was 87. After 1994, Kathrada served as a parliamentary counsellor in the Office of President Nelson Mandela.
Affectionately known as Kathy to friends and family, Ahmed Kathrada was born in the small North West town of Schweizer-Reneke on 21 August 1929.
His political awakening came early, when he was at the Johannesburg Indian High School. He joined the Young Communist League of South Africa, here he first distributed pamphlets on street corners.
Before Kathrada was 18, he was jailed for participating in the South African Indian Congress’s Passive Resistance Campaign. Soon after this, he met ANC leaders Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela for the first time.
After briefly studying at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Kathrada was selected to lead a South African youth delegation to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, held in Berlin in 1951. The event broadened his worldview and escalated his political awakening.
He took the opportunity to spend time with various communist youth organisations in Hungary and Poland before returning to South Africa to continue his activism.
During the late 1950s, Kathrada played an increasingly active role in civil disobedience against the apartheid government, and was a prime mover in the alliance between the ANC and South African Indian Congress. He was arrested, banned and placed under house arrest several times during the decade.
In 1962-63, Kathrada escaped house arrest and, with members of the ANC, continued as a covert dissident until his arrest in July 1963 at the ANC refuge, Liliesleaf Farm, in northern Johannesburg. Kathrada was tried alongside Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others, in what infamously became known as the Rivonia Trial. All the accused, including Kathrada, were sentenced to life imprisonment for acts of sabotage against the state. Kathrada spent 26 years in prison – 18 years on Robben Island before he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town.
While in prison, he completed his university studies, obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in criminology and history, and Honours in history and African politics. During his lifetime, Kathrada was also awarded four honorary degrees, including from Wits and the University of Missouri in the United States.
Sisulu wrote of Kathrada with great affection and respect about their shared time on Robben Island: “Kathy was a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old.”
Kathrada was released in October 1989, less than six months before the ANC was unbanned. He was elected to the organisation’s national executive committee at its first official national conference in 1991. He headed the ANC communications and public relations department until 1994, when he was elected a member of parliament in South Africa’s first democratic government under the country’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. Kathrada was also a parliamentary counsellor in the Office of the President.
He had a close, advisory relationship with Mandela, both during and after his presidency. Forged when the two spent their days in the midst of the anti-apartheid struggle, and strengthened in the quarries of Robben Island, Mandela and Kathrada shared a moral obligation to combat institutionalised racism and inspire the South African people. But the two friends also shared a love of literature, music and nature.
Between 1995 and 2006, Kathrada was the chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council. As someone who had been imprisoned on the island, he fervently campaigned to preserve and share the important and often painful history of the island prison.
He officially retired from political life in 1999. Kathrada wrote and compiled several books on his life and the history of the struggle against apartheid. His most profound work was a collection of writings from his time in prison, titled A Simple Freedom, published in 2013.
In his lifetime, Kathrada was honoured with numerous awards, both at home and abroad, including the ANC’s Merit Award for dedicated life service to the organisation and country, the Freedom of Johannesburg, a Presidential Order for Meritorious Service (Gold) and India’s Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.
Photographer Adrian Steirn, who profiled Kathrada for the popular 21 Icons photo series in 2013, spoke admiringly of the struggle stalwart’s humbleness and his love of language. “You’d never think that such a gentle man with so much humility and humour had spent his lifetime in jail. One of the things that struck me was that words and phrases were his companions.”
Ahmed Kathrada, in his own words
His hope for South Africa
“When one can be satisfied that every child goes to bed with a full stomach, gets up smiling, goes to school properly clothed, not to have to walk a great distance to school. When that happens, then only can we be satisfied.”
His life in prison
“When you have been deprived of freedom of speech for so many years, you never get fed up of talking.”
“That’s what one misses most in prison. It’s an artificial society without children and you want to even just hear a child crying. That’s how bad it is and that deprivation was the very worst. Not the food, nothing else. Just the deprivation of engaging with children.”
“We have to work together and towards improving the future of our country, but while realising our weaknesses and making use of our strengths.”
“We can’t live a life of bitterness, revenge and hatred. As difficult as it may be, we have to forgive.”
In 2013, Kathrada delivered a touching eulogy following the death of his friend, Mandela.
“Today, mingled with our grief is the enormous pride that one of our own has during your life, and now in your death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never experienced before in history. Remarkably, in these last few days, the masses of our people, from whatever walk of life, have demonstrated how very connected they feel to you; how the story of your life is their story and how their story is your story.”
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, established in 2008, is dedicated to deepening non-racialism in South Africa and the world, and also focuses on developing youth leadership. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe is currently the foundation’s chairperson.
Thousands of South Africans pay tribute to the life and work of Ahmed Kathrada on Twitter:
Kathrada is survived by his wife, former minister of health and public enterprises Barbara Hogan.
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